One person you know tells you something unhappy about their relationship with another person you know. What do you do?
The answer could depend on your geographical location, as I found out when I shared this dilemma with a friend who spent the last decade in Mexico. If I were Mexican, she told me, I would know when the first person told me about the problem, that it was now my duty to go to the second person and tell them about the problem. It’s part of the social contract that you do this for one another, acting as a kind of buffer to protect the relationship. I am not Mexican, and so this idea horrifies me. My struggle is more along the lines of “it might help things to tell, but it’s probably a violation of the trust of the first person to do so, and everyone could end up hating me because I meddled in things.”
I don’t know how dishes are washed in Brazil these days, but twenty years ago they were washed in cold, running water. If you’re from the US, you might find that idea disgusting. How can dishes get clean with cold water? But if you’re Brazilian, you’d be disgusted at the idea of dishes sitting in a sinkful of water with other dirty dishes, no matter how hot, and speaking of hot water, you only get that a few hours a day, so why are you wasting it?
We can see how understanding a culture is necessary for correctly understanding what people in that culture say and do. And that’s what I mean when I talk about interpreting Scripture within the context of the time and place in which it was written.
This is why, when people talk about the Bible ‘plainly’ saying homosexuality is wrong, I urge them to look deeper, beyond the lens their own culture has taught them to use. And it’s funny, because I’ve seen pastors encourage the same thing…until the topic of homosexuality comes up. Then the principles of sound exegesis get tossed out the window and condemnation rains down from the pulpit!
I like to compare queer people to tax collectors. Tax collectors were villains in the New Testament! Folks were appalled that Jesus would even speak to them. One Pharisee prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” What does this say about IRS agents today, or the person who does payroll at your office? Should we preach against them and call their occupation evil? Of course not. You and I understand that it isn’t the act of collecting taxes that the Bible was talking about. It was the practice of the tax collectors to collect more than was required, and profit from impoverishing others!
Likewise, I don’t think it was gay sex that was being condemned, the few times it comes up in the Bible. When we look into the times and places those passages were written we find that there were specific cultural practices–things like keeping boys as sexual slaves, practicing sexual rites during idol worship, temple prostitution, etc.–and that within that context, the Scriptures are more logically understood as speaking against those specific instances.
Letting go of your own understanding is a hard thing to do, I know. It took me a very long time, but I’m oh so glad I did. I dare you to give it a try 🙂